No time to sit about

November 18, 1994

There are now well over 200,000 postgraduates in British higher education -- one in seven students. This includes a 76 per cent increase in home postgraduates alone since 1988/89. The rise has been pushed by recession with graduates parked in masters courses waiting for jobs; by expansion of undergraduate education so that a postgraduate degree has become a designer label to add distinction in a crowded market; and by the attractiveness of postgraduates to institutions.

Postgraduate numbers are not capped. Rationing applies only to PhD students funded through the research councils and to student teachers. Otherwise, postgraduates pay their own way. The Treasury is complacent about recruitment and institutions get extra revenue.

Given such motivation on both sides, it is not surprising that rapid growth is a qualified success story. Little attention has been paid to the quality of what postgraduates are offered. The funding councils do not include PhD students in their teaching assessments on the grounds that they are not taught. There are widespread complaints about inadequate libraries, quirky supervision, courses cobbled together from undergraduate modules, and few means of redress. One year masters courses give neither incentive nor time to push for improvements. PhD students worry that complaints may be taken personally by supervisors with unpredictable consequences.

Against this background the National Postgraduate Committee has become an active and vocal force since the early 1990s when it was revamped. It now issues guidelines for the supervision of PhD students and for taught masters, which it sees as a basic minimum for institutions to follow.

The UK Council for Graduate Education has also become a force in the field. It expects to publish in March a paper on graduate schools, which will include a survey of institutions with such schools.

The THES has tried to help by running a service for research students each summer where issues can be aired and by publishing listings of research opportunities. This service, started in 1993 in collaboration with Higher Education Business Enterprises, the vice chancellors' and colleges' marketing company, has now grown into a book, Higher Education in the UK: Research Opportunities*, to be published next week.

Things can be improved by such means but more radical thinking is needed too. As other countries' economies develop, they are expanding their own undergraduate education. In future fewer undergraduate students from overseas may come to study here. The flow is likely to be increasingly at postgraduate level and they will come only if what they are offered is top quality, unobtainable at home and seen to be good value.

As for home students, lack of support -- no grants, no access to loans, accumulated debts -- already make postgraduate study unattractive if there are jobs to be had instead. An NPC survey in January of this year found PhD students desperate to teach undergraduates -- despite appalling rates of pay -- since some money is better than none. This is a path which can lead to exploitation of students and to fewer staff jobs for those beginning an academic career.

What this boils down to is that the fees and labour of graduate students -- home and overseas -- are being too heavily relied on to subsidise and maintain the quality of underfunded undergraduate education and too little attention is being paid to what is offered at graduate level. With universities strapped for cash and the unit of funding for undergraduate teaching falling, the temptation is obvious but the danger is great.

We hear a lot of the need to invest in the knowledge business and in high value-added activities if we are to be competitive economically. We are told continually of rival nations catching up; of service as well as manufacturing jobs migrating to cheaper parts of the world. On page iii of Multimedia this week, for example, David Puttnam warns that we have little time if we are to exploit our advantages in high-tech education.

If we are to seize new opportunities, mass undergraduate education will not be enough. We will need also to develop graduate education dramatically and not just for the rich or for students who come here from other countries and return home to compete with us. We must find ways to enable as many as possible of our own people to take their skills to higher levels. We will need to pioneer -- and it is always the pioneering which is most demanding -- new knowledge-based industries which will require closer working between graduate schools and companies along the lines of the hugely successful teaching company schemes. The Southampton University scheme with IBM (Multimedia page i) is too rare an example.

All this costs money. Finding it will require rebalancing the funding of undergraduate and postgraduate education to bring in more private money at initial levels, and more industrial money at advanced levels so that more help can be provided for clever students and for new ventures. As David Puttnam says, we do not have two years to sit about in meetings considering matters. We need to get on with it now.

* Can be ordered direct from The THES this week for Pounds 26.95. Full price in bookshops from Monday Pounds 29.95.

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